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New digital sky survey contains more than three million stars and celestial light sources

The world’s largest digital sky survey was released publicly on December 19 through the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) Surveys, a four-year effort that took observations of three fourths of the night sky from the Pan-STARRS observatory in Hawai’i. More than three billion stars, galaxies, and celestial light sources were captured in the half-million exposures, each of which was about 45 seconds long. The survey contains two petabytes of data, according to the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, equivalent to 40 million four-drawer filing cabinets worth of paper.

“The Pan-STARRS1 Surveys allow anyone to access millions of images and use the database and catalogs containing precision measurements of billions of stars and galaxies,” Dr. Ken Chambers, Director of the Pan-STARRS Observatories, said in a press release. “Pan-STARRS has made discoveries from Near Earth Objects and Kuiper Belt Objects in the Solar System to lonely planets between the stars; it has mapped the dust in three dimensions in our galaxy and found new streams of stars; and it has found new kinds of exploding stars and distant quasars in the early universe.”

Scientists can use information offered by the Pan-STARRS survey to measure previously unknown features of all nearby stars, such as motion and distance. The survey mapped our own Milky Way galaxy in unprecedented detail and collected data on many of the most distant known quasars.

“This will expand the census of almost all objects in the solar neighborhood to distances of about 300 light-years,” said Thomas Henning, director of the Planet and Star Formation Department of MPIA. Using the data, researchers can also better characterize low-mass star formation, identify Jovian planets around cool dwarf stars, and explore the Andromeda galaxy — our nearest neighbor — in extreme detail. Closer to home, the survey mapped the Milky Way in unprecedented detail.

This release will be followed next year by a more detailed release of the survey’s data.